Fear Itself

How do we “turn down the temperature” and come together again as a nation in the wake of the most polarizing and divisive election cycle since the Civil War? First by targeting a familiar enemy: fear.

Polls (liars in their own right) suggest the overwhelming majority of Republicans think Biden “stole” this year’s election from Trump. This despite zero evidence of widespread fraud, as determined by courts of law often presided by Republican and even Trump appointees, all the way up the highest court in the land. The most incredible part of all this? Giuliani and others have specifically avoided saying there was fraud in courts of law – and there can only be one reason for that: because there is no evidence, and claiming fraud would mean lying under oath and probably getting disbarred. The only time they use the word “fraud” is during press conferences and make-believe “hearings” in which they are not under oath. All of this logic is right out in the open, under the bright light of the daytime Sun. And yet the overwhelming majority of Republicans think the election was stolen.

This state of affairs has been orchestrated all the way back to 2016 by Trump, with willing and often enthusiastic abetting by Republican leaders. Had he lost in 2016, Trump had already teed up the notion that it would have been because of fraud. He claimed fraud even after winning, because he lost the popular vote. In 2020, he claimed all year that if he lost, fraud would be the only plausible reason. Meanwhile, Republican legislatures in battleground states ensured the election would proceed in a way that made it look like votes were being “found” by the Democrats. Had these legislatures allowed the early counting of mail-in ballots, Biden would have been in the lead (or close to it) from start to finish. But having them be counted later fed the conspiracy theory that votes were magically being “found” after Trump initially “won”.

These are all blatant and easily identifiable ways to shape a narrative. The problem is, human beings – even intelligent and compassionate ones – are extremely gullible, to the point where if you just say the same thing over and over again, despite having no credible evidence to support it, eventually people will believe it to be true. But there are two key and necessary elements to make that work. The first is that people need to want your lie to be true. That was easy in this case – of course Republicans wanted it to be true that they lost the election because of fraud, and not just because sometimes people win and sometimes people lose. The second necessary element to get people to believe an obvious lie is a visceral emotion upon which you can seize – and more often than not, that emotion is fear. And conveniently, there is one fear that grips the hearts of most Republicans, wherever they may be: socialism.

That fear is nothing new. The Republican Party began stoking it in earnest shortly after World War II, culminating in McCarthyism. And while McCarthyism seemed to fade away after a few years, the stoking of the underlying fear did not. Every election, Republicans cast the vote as a last line of defense against descent into an oppressive socialist regime, despite the fact that of all fourteen previous Democratic Presidents in our history, exactly zero have descended us into socialism. Some Americans have actually lived in oppressive regimes – which is why this fear helped Trump take Florida through the votes of Cuban Americans, for example. But most Republicans have simply been told that this is where the Democrats want us to go, and they’ve been told for decades and generations.

“Socialism” is an easy word to throw around, and sometimes it’s replaced with “communism” just to mix things up. Either term is automatically equated in Republican minds with oppression, while capitalism is hailed as the central tenet of freedom. But there are three fundamental truths ignored in these lines of thinking. First, even capitalism has flaws to go with its strengths; for example, it requires inequality in order to work – which breeds unequal access to basic freedoms. This flaw of capitalism is precisely why communism and socialism even exist. That leads to the second fundamental truth: in practice, capitalism is always necessarily tempered to some degree by elements of socialism, including right here in America. And finally, because all “isms” are flawed, they all are capable of supporting an oppressive regime. Putin has demonstrated that very effectively in post-communist Russia, and Trump would like nothing more than to lord over the same situation in America. Oppressive regimes – and more pointedly, dictators – don’t care what the underlying socioeconomic system is; they will exploit it as needed to establish and maintain power and control.

But Republicans have been continually beaten over the head by their party leadership with so many false equations: capitalism with freedom, socialism with oppression, Repubicans with capitalism (and therefore freedom), and Democrats with socialism (and therefore oppression). Hence their deep-seated fears that rear up every single election cycle, upon which Trump and his enablers have voraciously preyed. And hence it inevitably comes to pass that the vast majority of Republicans have brought themselves to believe the 2020 election was stolen, despite zero credible evidence to that effect. Fear, desire, and repetition. It’s all depressingly easy.

The polarization accompanying these fears also means that arguing about the complete lack of evidence for fraud will have no effect. Even high ranking Republicans can’t have any effect here – including Trump-appointed judges, the Supreme Court, and the leader of the Republican Senate. They all just get labeled as “RINOs” and absorbed into the conspiracy.

The only way we have any chance of returning toward some semblance of reasonable debate over the course of the nation is to get back to addressing the underlying fear that precipitated all of this. We need to have a sensible dialogue about the balance that must exist in any free nation between capitalist ideals and the necessary regulation of those ideals. We must stop throwing words and sound bites around about the extremes – and that is true of both Republicans and Democrats alike. Some of the rhetoric from the progressive arm of the Democratic Party has certainly helped fan the flames of Republican fears. Deep down, I would like to believe that most Americans want to live a peaceful life somewhere in the center, where fear loses its teeth and gives way to reason, compassion, and common goals. Living there starts with having the conversation there.

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